MOSCOW (Reuters) - To thunderous applause, cheers and even tears, Vladimir Putin delivered a fiercely patriotic speech on Tuesday that laid claim to Crimea and set out a vision of a Greater Russia that could define his third term as president.
In a 47-minute address to his loyal political and business elite that was interrupted by clapping at least 30 times, Putin described a deeply conservative world view in which Russia hankered after land lost when the Soviet Union collapsed.
Presenting himself as the guardian of the nation and of Russians everywhere, the former KGB spy spat defiance at the West and charted an inward-looking course that underlined the shift in his thinking since he first rose to power 14 years ago.
“In the hearts and minds of people, Crimea has always been and remains an inseparable part of Russia,” Putin said in a passionate address, delivered from a lectern in the Kremlin’s glittering St George Hall two days after Crimea voted in a disputed referendum to become part of Russia.
Two years after mass protests in Moscow and other big cities that briefly shook his grip on power, this was the Putin of old - confident, defiant and steely, and, for many Russians, at his best in a crisis.
Putin looked in search of a “big idea” to define his new six-year term in office when it began in May 2012. Crimea appears to have provided it, though it comes at the risk of economic collapse and isolation by the West.
Since the East-West standoff over Ukraine began after the country’s pro-Moscow president was overthrown last month, and Russian forces took control of the Crimea peninsula that had been handed to Ukraine in 1954 by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, Putin’s ratings have risen to a three-year high.
Tuesday’s speech won a standing ovation and was greeted by chants of “Russia! Russia!”. It was capped by the signing of a treaty on bringing Crimea in to Russia, and two women in the audience wiped away tears of joy.
At 61, he has dropped almost all the hints of liberalism he showed when he took over from President Boris Yeltsin and set about restoring order after the political and economic chaos of the 1990s when the Kremlin’s authority was weakened.
An anti-war rally in Moscow drew some 30,000 people on Saturday, but liberal criticism of Putin over Crimea has been drowned out by nationalist fervor.
Returning to a theme he has often used to rally Russians behind him, Putin described the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 as a trauma for the Russian nation.
“Millions of Russians went to sleep in one country and woke up in a foreign country - part became ethnic minorities in former Soviet republics. One of the most divided people on earth,” he said. “Today, after many years, I heard how Crimeans not long ago said that in the 1990s they were passed from hand to hand like sacks of potatoes.”
He also resorted to another well-worn technique, lambasting the West, and dismissing suggestions abroad that Russia might try to take over Russian-speaking regions in eastern Ukraine.
“Western partners, led by the United States, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun,” he said.
“They have come to believe in their exceptionalism and their sense of being the chosen ones. That they can decide the destiny of the world, that it is only they who can be right.”
He depicted the new leaders in Kiev as “nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites”.
Political analyst Dmitry Badovsky implied Putin had found his “big idea” in drawing people together behind “national reunification”.
“This historic moment ... evokes in everyone a feeling of huge pride in Russia, that it has become the gatherer of Russian lands,” said Valentina Matviyenko, the speaker of the upper house of parliament who has been hit by U.S. sanctions.
“In essence, what has happened today is the reunification of primordial Russian lands steeped in the Russian spirit and the blood of Russian soldiers.”
The West signaled Russia would pay a price for embracing Crimea. France called for a strong response, members of the Group of Seven economic powers will meet on the crisis next week and Britain said Russia was “choosing the route of isolation”.
That does not seem to worry Putin. Ending his speech with a call to the Russian people and the parliamentarians gathered before him to support moves to bring Crimea into the Russian Federation, he said: “I do not doubt your support!”
Additional reporting by Thomas Grove, Alexei Anishchuk, Lidia Kelly, Steve Gutterman, Vladimir Soldatkin and Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Giles Elgood